It is a very brave author who makes the central character of his book a Jihadist suicide-bomber. But that is exactly what Nadim Safdar does. This is a very careful examination of , someone’s state of mind, of the factors that prepare someone for such a fateful, fatal decision.
Considering that we know, from the very start of the book, exactly what Akram plans to do, Nadim Safdar has created a sympathetic and believable figure which is a considerable achievement. We also come to like Grace and Adrian, because of their flaws, because they are not perfect, because, like Akram, their lives have been difficult and fraught with mental and physical pain. There are other characters who are much more difficult to like. Mustafa hovers on the brink of likeability but, to my mind, does not manage to cross the line. Bobby and Azra are just plain reprehensible, as is Adrian’s father, Chav, a skinhead and a racist who terrorizes his local community.
Nadim Safdar does not offer any excuses for his characters, but he does take the trouble to explain them and that may help us to understand the country in which we live. One of the underlying themes of the book is the racism that is endemic in the host community. Safdar shows us a white community that has been written off, that has no hope, who cannot aspire to improving their lives and whose dignity is dependent upon treating others as inferior to themselves. This has the inevitable effect of making the persecuted community seek ways to defend themselves, falling back on the values of their religion, which become distorted in this process of self-assertion.
Safdar does not present the Pakistani community as blameless. He puts the term gora which is pejorative into the mouths of his characters to describe the white English majority, as he uses the term Paki in the mouths of his white characters. Do not expect this to be a comfortable read, because it is not. That is the whole point. It is a story that is very much written to explain its time, and it succeeds in that purpose.
I am not going to go into great detail about the plot, because that would spoil the development of the story. It is enough to say that every single character in this book is broken in some way, and not necessarily just metaphorically. It is a story that deals with the physical and psychological damage that has been done to people over the last thirty or so years. I do not even recall Margaret Thatcher being mentioned in the story, but her legacy looms large over the communities that Safdar describes. All the major characters in this story belong to the underclass. This is a lament for the way in which people have been written off, and for how they turn to extremism in their despair.
Safdar presents us with a picture of the world in which we live, the world that produced Brexit and Trump, and Jihadism. It is not an easy read.